Ras el hanout

راس الحانوت Ras el hanout

I have been spending a lot of time hunched over a computer lately, grinding out copy over seasoned with adverbs. This column, my sort of daily cool down, has suffered from all this time spent working in my head. So I’ve begun to cook again, after work, instead of heading down to Bikram, I cook as a more physical means of expression. In turn going back to where my food journey began, traveling through North Africa as a recent graduate, finding myself as a stagiaire in the great restaurants of Morocco.

Moroccan cuisine is extremely refined, thanks to Morocco’s exchanges with other cultures and nations over the centuries, something I hope I continued during my time spent behind the burners creating Amerrakesh-fusions.

During this time, one ingredient stands out from all others, a mixture of the best spices Morocco has to offer: ras el hanout used in many savory dishes. Every chef de cuisine I worked under had a preference from where in the souk it was sourced, seemingly knowing each shops’ blend of over a dozen spices. In my naivety I was always intrigued how they could differentiate ratios of clove to cardamom, grains of paradise to orris root and monk’s pepper just by looking at it. But as I grew to learn, they were all only after the ras el hanout that included cantharides for its aphrodisiac properties. An ingredient I’m finding difficult to source in Manhattan.

Cantharides, made from the crushed dried beetle commonly known as the Spanish Fly have been used for centuries as an aphrodisiac, but also as a souring agent in various spice mixes throughout North Africa. Since the early nineties, the use has been banned in Morocco, but spice spotters can still see it in the souk. I like to use it in my Moroccan tajine, that I still prepare in a special earthenware pot I seasoned with sweat and tears during my travels.

Like most tajines in Moroccan cuisine, mine involves the slow simmering of inexpensive meats. For example, lamb neck, shoulder or shank cooked until it is falling off the bone. In order to accomplish this butter-like tenderness, the cooking liquid (Moroccan water) must contain some fat, which may be skimmed off later. I use camel hump. Into this mix I combine seasonal ingredients like apricots, dates, nuts and preserved lemon, as well as the famous spice blend ras el hanout to create an aromatic stew. As faithful as my reproduction is, it lacks the same urethra burning zing it once had in Morocco, something I put down to the availability of cantharides.

Does anyone have an idea for a substitute ingredient? What are some aphrodisiac foods you like?

I’m now on Twitter and Facebook. Like or follow me for updates.